Last days of Rome
Driving across Europe will soon involve snoozing in a self-driving limo with a half-eaten baguette in your lap. But for now it remains something special. By Ben Miller
THE DRIVE BACK from Cahors, in south-west France, to Lincolnshire is one of those journeys unconcerned with your method, your speed, your tactics or even your route (skirt well wide of Paris? Brave the Périphérique? Unscrew the number plates and set the cruise to 150mph? Jokes) – it’s a long day at the wheel, whichever way you cut it. And so 24 July started with a 6.30am alarm in deepest rural France and ended at 8.30pm that night with the Bentley’s instruments telling the story in a few curt digits: 11hrs 20mins, 715 miles, 63mph and 25.6mpg.
The really impressive bit? That we then went out for dinner, rather than crawling into bed with eyes like sandpaper (and not just because there was nothing edible in the fridge). Just one reason why, when a weekend away for a friend’s 40th birthday came up, I decided against booking a couple of budget airline tickets and booked the Eurotunnel instead (high ’n’ wide carriage, naturally). No one remembers taking flights; with any luck you wake up on landing. Great European drives (and rides) make memories.
Rewind. Before the drive back there was the drive down, naturally. In a world obsessed with staying connected, the Bentley’s first win is to start to soothe your frenzied mind before you’ve even made it to Folkestone. Sure there’s Bluetooth connectivity and CarPlay (not to mention full rearseat entertainment, complete with headphones) but we choose instead to block incoming calls, fire up the carefully crafted playlist (power ballads mainly – don’t judge me) and settle in. Post rush hour miles pass effortlessly, first east to Cambridge then around the M25 and on to the south coast, Kent basking in another fine day from summer 2018’s generous quota. The sumptuous seats do their thing and the Bentayga’s air ride isolates the road beneath you just as its insulation and glazing isolate the roar of displaced atmosphere around you. Up ahead the big V8 feels indomitable, effortless and reassuringly over-endowed. In a world increasingly unwilling to let you do so, we just let our thoughts wander.
The route down (in stark contrast to the one-hit charge back) splits into three legs: Stamford to Amiens, Amiens to the sleepy town of La Souterraine, and a final two-hour cruise to Cahors for the birthday weekend.
Under the Channel, into France and the Bentley gets to work on covering the vast autoroute network. Bigger is better: it’s one of nature’s incontrovertible rules, like survival of the fittest and running water’s fondness for the easy way out. Just as light aircraft worry about bird strikes, storms and turbulence where an A380 doesn’t, so there’s a stress-salving peace of mind to heading south not in an inconsequential tin box but in 2.5 tonnes of crafted SUV that smells like a saddler’s toolkit
and feels at least as expensive as an Airbus.
The Bentley’s air-conditioning, with its unfeasibly satisfying organ-stop vent controls, takes the sting out of the Europe-wide heatwave as the adaptive cruise removes any real element of effort from the act of driving. The cruise control stalk is conspicuously Audi but having gotten accustomed to it in my previous long-term test car, the RS5, I’m a fan. Set your speed with the button on the end of the stalk (set low and to the left of the steering wheel), adjust speed up and down by – you guessed it – prodding the stalk up and down, and set the ferocity of your tailgating using the toggle, from ‘dignified and distant’ maximum to the ‘Move. Now!’ minimum. Mostly we cruise in Comfort but now and again there’s cause to stir my idle left arm, twirl the Bentley’s beautifully tactile drive mode rotary counter-clockwise for Sport, with its iron-will determination to stay level in corners and unbridled enthusiasm for savaging any road wide enough to let you exploit the epic powertrain. The fuel gauge needle freefalls.
You can of course try to chase half-decent fuel economy in a V8 petrol Bentley (the short-lived Bentayga Diesel, though excellent, is no more) but the temptation after each toll booth is too great, particularly when we lose so much time feeding in tickets across the yawning foot-wide chasm I’ve left to the kerb, fearful of scraping the car’s gloss back 22s. Window back up, pedal to the carpet and the Bentley’s prow rises to the guttural roar of the twin-turbo eight.
At Amiens the Bentayga takes its first drink: 117 euros in exchange for the day’s 365 miles. Ouch. Still, who cares? I’m unlikely to make a habit of summer holidaying in Bentleys, and we’re still running a smaller tab than flying.
After a night at the gorgeous La Cour 26 (chambre-hoteamiens.fr – handy if you’re ever blasting away from, or back to, Calais and need a nice room for the night) we put in the stint south to La Souterraine, the Bentley’s sheer road presence moving holidaying British traffic aside with disdain. By now the obscenely powerful audio system has proved pretty special.4
Hardly an audiophile, I’ve always struggled to understand how anyone could justify spending £6615 on a stereo. I still can’t, but I can now at least appreciate that doing so is not a waste of money. Few that I’ve used actually get clearer and more detailed the louder you go – the Naim does, just as the V8 sounds best when you’re whipping it like a two-stroke. Again we luck out on accommodation. After a very enjoyable 20 minutes of deserted back road off the A20 motorway, we roll into sleepy, sun-drenched La Souterraine mid-afternoon. Park up, admire the Bentley’s bluff and bug-smeared nose (the headlights might be too small for the car but their detailing is exquisite) and go in search of a cool beer in the shade. On my phone, updates on various unfolding Ryan Air nightmares among other attendees light up WhatsApp. The poor, wretched creatures.
Maison No.9 (maisonnumeroneuf. com/en) is a short walk from the square and a glorious old sprawl of a place lovingly restored and run by an English couple, Duncan and Lisa, who swapped the stress of running pubs in the UK for the sanctuary (but equally hard work) of this quiet corner of France.
The Bentayga squeezes through the gates to take up residence next to several vast lavender bushes in the shady walled garden, looking entirely in its element. Duncan and Lisa have had Bentleys stay before, classics with chassis like trucks and engines like an aeroplane’s, not to mention a couple of French-registered, open-wheel Bugattis that arrive each September on their way to the classic street races at Angoulême (circuitdesremparts.com/en). I imagine their owners now, in these hours before dinner, checking oil levels and effecting carburettor adjustments for the prevailing conditions. With the Bentayga there’s absolutely nothing to do but look at it, so we do, Duncan adamant he’d rather drive his world-weary Freelander 1 than be seen in something so ostentatious. Duncan, my man, that’s how everyone feels until they try it…
And in that way that it does when you’re on holiday, the clock then goes onto fast-forward, time passing in a blur of late nights, late starts and fiercely hot days only a pool and nothing to do can see you through.
The Bentley just gets on and does its thing, feeling special every single time you climb into it and making every trip easy, whether we’re popping into town for yet more fresh bread, hauling five to the local go-kart track or blatting up the nearby hillclimb of a backroad for no other reason than it’s deserted and fiendishly technical. (And because it’s high time the unofficial course record, apparently set in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, was shattered.)
The next day we get up early and simply drive home. And make more happy memories in 11 hours 20 minutes and 715 miles than you’d hope to find a lifetime of Ryan Air flights.
What could be iner? A Conti GT you say? Well possibly, given there were only two of us
‘Such cute little streets! So quaintly narrow! Oh God we’re stuck…’
CarPlay the easy way to update the Bentayga’s already dated screengraphics
What price taking the sting out of very earlystarts?
Looks as big as the house. Isn’t; quite